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Lawrence firm has connection to company on ABC's "Shark Tank" tonight; a guide to Haskell Avenue's pending closure
My wife used to really encourage me to try out for the ABC television program "Shark Tank" — until she realized there aren't any actual sharks. Regardless, a Lawrence company is going to be watching the program with great interest tonight.
Lawrence-based Western International has partnered with a Prairie Village-based company that will be featured on the program at 8 p.m. on ABC. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, it's a contest-based show where young companies make presentations in front of venture capitalists, a.k.a. the sharks.
The folks over at Western International, based in East Lawrence, won't be in the tank tonight, but they'll be rooting hard for the Johnson County company SwimZip. Officials from SwimZip will be on the program trying to gain funding to expand the reach of its line of specialty swimwear. The Lawrence connection is that SwimZip's warehouse and shipping facility recently moved to Lawrence. Western International late last year signed a deal to operate the facility for SwimZip out of its building near 19th and Delaware streets.
"It is going to be fun to see what it does for sales," Todd Stauffer, vice president of Western International, told me.
We'll have to wait until tonight to find out whether the company was successful in gaining funding, but Betsy Johnson, one of the founders and owners of SwimZip, told me she's confident the company is going to benefit either way.
"It is going to be awesome," Johnson said. "It is the type of exposure you can't buy."
The company has been in business for a little more than three years. Johnson founded it with her brother, Berry Wanless, after Johnson was diagnosed with skin cancer at 26. After researching skin cancer, she realized it probably was her time out in the sun as a child that put her most at risk.
So she and her brother designed a line of swimwear that blocks 98 percent of the UVA and cancer causing rays. A big part of the system is a special swim shirt that provides protection for the shoulders and back. That's also where the "zip" part of the company comes from. The shirts use a special no-pinch zipper that makes them easier to put on and take off than traditional swim shirts.
As for Western International, SwimZip is just the beginning of what it hopes will be a significant expansion. Western International's main line of business has been as a wholesaler of farm and ranch books. It stores about 8,000 titles at its warehouse and ships them to farm and ranch stores around the world.
But Stauffer said one of the company's areas of expertise is in shipping and warehousing, which got company officials thinking of how they might be able to help other firms.
"There are a lot of small start-ups out there that get started in their garages, and then realize they've grown to the point that they are too big for the garage or the basement," Stauffer said. "We see a niche out there to help smaller companies that are growing and need a mid-size warehouse, but don't want to operate it themselves."
The company employs six people and has room to house the shipping operations of additional companies. Stauffer said the company is in discussions with a Canadian company that wants a U.S.-based location.
"Being in this part of the country is a plus for us," Stauffer said. "We basically have equal shipping times to both coasts."
UPDATE AND SPOILER ALERT: SwimZip on Friday was offered and accepted a $60,000 investment from one of the "sharks" on the program. The company's new partner, "QVC Queen" Lori Greiner, mentioned on the show that she thought SwimZip had potential to get into stores such as Target and other major retailers. So, as they say, stay tuned.
In other news and notes from around town:
• As we've previously reported, there is going to be a hassle on Haskell on Monday. And you had better get used to it because it's going to be around for a long time. Construction work on the South Lawrence Trafficway will close Haskell Avenue between 27th and 29th streets through Spring of 2015.
There are several businesses along that stretch, and it hasn't been real clear how people will get to them. Well, let's clarify: Motorists still will be able to access both 27th Street and 29th Street off of Haskell Avenue. In other words, the closure begins just beyond those intersections.
But here's the trick: You are going to have to plan ahead. If you are trying to access a business at or south of 29th Street, you are going to have to come at it from the south. If you are trying to access a business at or north of 28th Street, you are going to have to come at it from the north. And you also are going to have to turn on 27th Street and wind your way through an industrial park to get to 28th Street.
Here's the thing to remember: There's no side street west of Haskell that runs all the way through from 27th Street to 29th Street. Oregon Street runs from 27th Street to 28th Street, but it dead ends there. So, if you are hoping to take just a little one-block detour to skirt around the construction zone, that is not going to work too well. Louisiana Street to the west is going to get busier during this time period because it is the first major road west of the construction zone that connects 23rd Street to 31st Street. Truck traffic, however, is not supposed to be on Louisiana Street. Technically, a truck coming from the east and needing to deliver to an industrial business near 31st and Haskell, would need to go all the way to Iowa Street, then connect with 31st Street and head back east until it reaches Haskell.
It will be interesting to watch what unofficial shortcuts get developed over the next 18 months or so. Previously, the city's public works director told me that a temporary road will be built west of Haskell Avenue. It basically will use a portion of the Haskell Rail Trail that runs behind the old E&E Display building that is between 28th and 29th Streets. That would create a through route for trucks and other delivery vehicles needing to access businesses in that area. But the road definitely won't be designed to serve as a detour for all the traffic trying to go down Haskell Avenue.
I'm sure there will be some complaints early on, and then people will get used to it. I actually was one of the few people looking forward to it, because I thought it would slow my wife's regular path to the stores on South Iowa Street. I thought I would save some money. Then she went and bought an expensive hovercraft on eBay. I can't win.
• Soon, I'll also be losing another free place to park in downtown Lawrence. City commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday will consider setting the rates for the new Vermont Street parking garage. The garage has been open for a couple of months, but parking has been free while the city determines rates.
City Manager David Corliss is recommending that the rates be basically the same as those in the New Hampshire Street garage. That means the lower level will be two-hour free parking, while the upper levels will charge $1 to park for up to 10 hours. Motorists will pay at self-serve pay stations. Despite previous discussions, there won't be a gate system on the garage.
Corliss also is recommending that the roof level of the garage be used for free 10-hour parking. That's similar to what has been done at the New Hampshire Street garage. But Corliss now is recommending that the free designation on the roof level of the New Hampshire Street garage be discontinued. It would start charging a $1 fee for 10 hours of parking. Corliss said demand for the New Hampshire Street garage has increased significantly and people no longer need an incentive to use it.
Commissioners will discuss the proposed parking rates at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday.